Saturday, July 19, 2008

2009: The end of TV broadcasting as we know it

In February of next year, all TV stations are supposed to make the switch over to digital broadcasting, making analog equipment obsolete. We are being inundated presently with advertising, advising people with analog TV's who still get their programs through the airwaves instead of cable, to get adapter equipment to upgrade their TV's to receive digital broadcasts.

That would be fine... if it worked. But will it work just as good as the analog broadcasts it's replacing? If the following article is any indication, I would say "no". From Doc Searls at Linux Journal:

What happens after TV's mainframe era ends next February?
[...] On February 17, 2009, all U.S. television stations will be required to switch off their analog transmitters and use digital transmission exclusively. Nearly all of that will happen on what's left of the UHF band. Most stations will maintain their old channel branding, and still be known as "Channel 2" or "Channel 12", but their signals will in nearly all cases be coming in on a new UHF channel.


If you have an HDTV and live within sight of New York TV station transmitters on the Empire State Building, you can probably pick them up over an antenna on your set or your roof. In fact, a loop or bowtie antenna will do. So will length of wire about 5 inches long, attached to the center conductor of your coaxial connection on the back of your set.

But if you live farther away, good luck. Your old VHF TV station not only won't have the range it did on VHF, but will probably not have the same range as an old analog signal on the same UHF frequency. It certainly won't have the same behavior. The signals tend to be either there or not-there. They don't degrade gracefully with increasing "snow", as analog signals did. They break up into a plaid-like pattern, or disappear entirely.


Digital signal transmission is also very different from the analog sort. For a variety of arcane technical reasons, many (perhaps most) digital signals are directional. That is, they operate at their full licensed power in only a few (or perhaps only one) direction, and have big dents or "nulls" in other directions. In the old analog days directionality was the exception rather than the rule, and was usually intentional, to protect other signals on the same or adjacent frequencies, or to pull back on the signal in the direction of a mountain that might cause unwanted reflections or places (such as the sea) where nobody lived anyway. Not the case with DTV. Lots of new DTV signals are directional just anyway.

It's interesting to see how this plays out where we live in Santa Barbara (and where I'm writing this now).

On my old roof antenna and its rotator, I got just about every analog TV station between Santa Barbara and San Diego. That included both VHF and UHF signals. With that antenna (the top one from Radio Shack) I even got little K35DG, a low-power UHF station at UC San Diego with a signal that puts a deep null in our direction (west-northwest, nearly 200 miles across the Pacific ocean). I sent them emails reporting reception and they were amazed.

In our new house (next door to the old one that had the big roof antenna) I anticipated the digital switchover and installed a high-gain Winegard HD-9022 UHF antenna. For analog reception it gets every UHF in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego/Tijuana — in nearly all weather, at nearly all times of year. But that's analog. What about digital?

For DTV, the Winegard does the best it can, but it's not enough. The slight terrain shadowing between here and Broadcast Peak (where most our local TV stations radiate from) makes the two digital signals from there — KPMR and KEYT — almost impossible to receive. I haven't seen KPMR at all (could be it's not on the air yet), and KEYT's signal on Channel 27 is barely there. In fact it's so bad that the one time I got it the signal didn't stay visible long enough for me to shoot a picture of it. That's a far cry from KEYT's signal on Channel 3, which was crystalline on our old roof antenna and is still okay with rabbit ears on our old Trinitron in the basement.

Ironically, the only clear DTV pictures we get are mostly from 200 or more miles away across the ocean — from San Diego/Tijuana. All our HD viewing of over-the-air TV is from there. As you see here and here, reception is either perfect or gone. In fact it's most of the time. Setting up the DVR ro record programs is pointless, give the low hit/miss ratio of reception.

My points:
  1. For many viewers, the digital signals aren't going to be there, no matter what the viewer does (other than hunt them down on cable or satellite).
  2. The stations themselves in most cases are giving up viewers, including (as in WECT's case -- see below) whole regional markets.

It's all a big new game of hard-to-get.

Of course, what you get from the FCC and the TV industry is pure propaganda. If you watch TV at all you have surely seen many reassuring messages about what's going to happen in February. If all you watch are cable or satellite, you won't notice the difference. But if you watch over the air signals, the difference will possibly be huge, regardless of what the promotional messages say. So will the disconnect between the whole concept of television and its origins as a live terrestrial medium. Hey, what's the "range" of a YouTube video? Or of anything you send over the Net, including live video streams? [...]

It's the end of TV as we've known it. I suspect that so many people now get their TV from cable or satellite, that the people who complain about the new digital broadcasts limited reception will simply be ignored, and told to get cable if they want better reception.

Meanwhile, the FCC has auctioned off many of the former analog TV bands for about 20 BILLION dollars, to new owners like AT&T, and Verizon:

FCC releases 700MHz auction details, Verizon, AT&T big winners

Some people are predicting that the next "Big Thing" will be TV content being sent to cell phones. We shall see.

I can't personally say I will miss analog TV broadcasting, because I haven't used it for decades. In the city, so many things interfered with reception, we went with cable. Here in rural Oregon, we have only one TV station within analog broadcast range, and it comes in so badly that we don't watch it. We get DISH satellite TV. The programing you pay for also tends to be better than the crap the networks offer for free.

I'll miss the concept of analog TV the way it was, but I won't miss it in practical reality. The change-over may suck for those who still depend on the airwave broadcasts, but Doc Searls believes that all things considered, the change is ultimately a positive development in the evolution of TV:

[...] This essay, and a shorter one in an upcoming Linux Journal, are swan songs for my expiring expertise (such as it is, or was) in analog broadcast engineering. Knowing this kind of stuff will be as useful to me as the Morse code I haven't used in close to 50 years. And I'm looking forward to it.

Because the failures of the DTV switchover will bring into sharp relief the obsolescence of official notions about What TV Is.

What we called TV has already become nothing more than a form of data that can be carried over the Net at nearly zero cost, and stored anywhere for about the same. Live transmission is a demanding thing, but not once the pipes get fat enough. Where they aren't, we have podcasting and variations in file size to avoid bandwidth hoggery.

Already anybody can produce high-def TV. As devices such as the Red camera come down in price, along with processing, data storage and render farming, Hollywood-grade video production quality will no longer be exclusive to Hollywood. Collaboration and distribution over the Net will inevitably follow.

As it does, it will become ever more clear that "TV stations" will be repositioned as doomed mainframes.

There will always be a need for local and regional news, and coverage of events by organizations and individuals whose interest and expertise is also local and regional. But "range" will be determined by interest, not by transmission medium. [...]

Read the rest to see what he has to say about the brave new future of TV. The whole article is worth reading, it has many more details (and references and examples) than I've excerpted here, and lots of embedded links, too. It's a thorough examination of the topic, and you won't have to be a geek to understand it.

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